CEU’s Digital Humanities Initiative’s Third Conversation Session Features Susan Schreibman

Professor Susan Schreibman, director of Maynooth University’s Humanities Research Institute, was the guest of the third session of the Digital Humanities Initiative’s “Conversations in the Digital Humanities” series at CEU on November 22.  Schreibman is the founding editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed Journal of the Text Encoding Initiative and a co-editor of the Companion to Digital Humanities (2004) and the New Companion to Digital Humanities (2015).

The focus of the conversation was on new modes of audience engagement in digital history projects. Invited discussants Diane Geraci, director of the CEU Library, and Nora Bertalan, communication and public programs coordinator at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, recounted successful public history projects in Budapest in recent years, emphasizing the powerful impact of such initiatives as the Budapest 100 and the “Yellow-Star Houses” projects, coordinated by Blinken OSA.

Schreibman gave insight into two of her recent digital history projects, entitled the “Letters of 1916” and “Contested Memories: The Battle of Mount Street Bridge.” The objective of the former was to collect, digitally store and make available online the letters written by Irish men and women in the year of the Easter Rising, the first armed uprising of the Irish revolutionary period.  Schreibman pointed out that instead of simply using crowdsourcing as a way to fill in the large amounts of data that were necessary for this project, the project team adopted a social engagement approach by involving the Irish public in archiving contemporary people’s everyday perspectives of 1916. Thus, in sharing their families’ experiences recorded in personal correspondences and voluntarily transcribing and editing the content of the letters, ordinary Irish men and women became not only engaged in the archiving process but also active participants in (re-)telling an important part of Irish national history.

While Schreibman’s other project, “Contested Memories…,” does not directly involve crowdsourcing, it does also engage in public history. One of the project’s undertakings has been to place users in the midst of the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, a minor-scale event in the Irish struggle for independence but the most successful rebel engagement in Dublin in 1916. Through 3D visualization techniques, the historically accurate representation of the location, weaponry and identifiable participants of the skirmish allow users to “re-live” this symbolic episode of Irish national history.

Both of these projects gained momentum through the 100th anniversary of the events they dealt with. Thus, in Schreibman’s conversation with the discussants and the audience, the parallels between the 2016 memorial year in Ireland and the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 revolution in Hungary were inevitable. Schreibman pointed out that the success of engaging the public in digital history projects depends on the chronological distance between the studied events and today’s project participants/audience. In this sense, she said, 100 years is ideal: the letters Irish families have sent to the project were written by long gone relatives, about whom today’s generations are less reluctant to share intimate details than about their parents or grandparents. At the same time, however, the great grandparents’ generation has not yet disappeared into oblivion, which makes public interest more keen about their lives than those of earlier generations with whom today’s people are less likely to connect. Therefore, Schreibman concluded, public history projects on 1956 might still be particularly challenging because of their chronological proximity to us.